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Feature: The 2007 International Drug Policy Reform Conference -- Mr. Costa Meets the Opposition

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #513)
Politics & Advocacy

The 2007 International Drug Policy Reform Conference in New Orleans kicked off with a bang Thursday as Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, told a boisterous and sometimes combative audience of drug reformers that while a drug-free world is probably not attainable, it is almost certainly desirable, and that he would continue to work toward that goal.

Antonio Maria Costa (courtesy
Costa, who as head of the UNODC is the leading cheerleader for the global drug prohibition regime and chief chider of governments UNODC believes are not making sufficient efforts in the war on drugs, is the highest placed drug war figure to ever address a drug reform conference. But while his attendance could mark the beginning of a broader dialog on global drug policy, at various points Thursday it seemed more like a dialog of the deaf.

His remarks came on the opening morning of the three-day conference hosted by the Drug Policy Alliance, and co-hosted by Students for Sensible Drug Policy, the Marijuana Policy Project, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Harm Reduction Coalition, and the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. With more than a thousand attendees, the joint 2007 conference is the largest drug reform conference ever.

"A drug-free world is not a slogan I use," Costa told the opening morning crowd. "It is an aspiration, not an operational target, much as one aspires to eliminate poverty or hunger or disease."

While Costa flatly rejected drug legalization, he also suggested that drug law enforcement was not the ultimate "solution" to drug use and the drug trade. Even if all the drugs produced around the world this year could be eradicated, he said, they would be planted again next year -- and if farmers in Colombia or Afghanistan didn't want to plant them, farmers somewhere else would. "While law enforcement is necessary, it is not sufficient," he told the crowd.

The answer, Costa argued, is not on the supply side but the demand side. "Lowering demand is the necessary condition to make drug policy realistic and sustainable," he said, adding that that could be achieved by "prevention, harm reduction, and treatment, combined with comprehensive health programs."

Then the top global anti-drug bureaucrat took on the topic of legalization. "Some people say drug use is a personal choice and nobody else's business," he said, as the room erupted with sustained applause. The room quickly quieted, however, as Costa continued: "I have some problems with this. First, this is a health issue. Drug abuse is a disease affecting the brain, triggered by individual vulnerability," he suggested, as scattered hissing and booing broke out.

"Drugs are not dangerous because they are illegal, they are illegal because they are dangerous," Costa bravely soldiered on, only to be met with a crescendo of boos.

Costa also addressed the argument that drug prohibition creates violence, if only obliquely. "You say prohibition creates violence and crime by creating a lucrative black market, so legalize drugs to defeat organized crime. I agree with you, but this is not only an economic argument," he maintained. "Legalization will increase the damage done to individuals and society."

For Costa, there are no drug users, only "addicts" who need help. "Why do we have these ideological debates about drug addiction?" he complained. "People aren't divided about treating tuberculosis or AIDS."

Careful to repeatedly mention that he supported harm reduction as well as prevention and treatment, Costa called on the audience to join him as an "extremist of the center" in an effort to destroy demand for drugs. "We all want to help the farmers and the drug addicts and reduce the crime and violence," he said. "Let us build on this common ground to build a safer and healthier world."

Costa's positions did not go unchallenged. Immediately following him at the podium was Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, Director of the International Harm Reduction Development program at the Open Society Institute, who went through a litany of repression of drug users: ranging from Russia, where police often block them from gaining access to health care; to China, where police wait outside needle exchanges and arrest people on the way out; to Thailand, where authorities killed thousands of suspected drug users in 2003; to India, where throwing users in cages passes as drug treatment; and Kazakhstan, where female users are subjected to body searches and forced to engage in sex acts to get their seized drugs back.

"When you look at the UNODC report on drug treatment in India," she noted, "those people in the cages are going to be counted. There are no standards for what is drug treatment; the numbers are self-reported."

Costa took even more flak at a lunchtime question and answer session immediately following the presentation. As attendees eager to see the exchange packed the room past capacity, a cavalcade of drug policy reformers and scholars took aim at the UNODC head and his arguments.

"This is a healthy opening," said UC Santa Cruz sociologist Craig Reinarman, who praised Costa for his fortitude in coming to the conference and his charm in making his case. "If you're wrong on most of the arguments, it helps if you're charming." Reinarman challenged Costa on his prescription to deal with drug users by subjecting them to drug treatment. "We agree on making treatment available to all who want it, but the vast majority of people who use illicit drugs do not become addicts who need treatment. The idea that you will treat people who don't have a disease flies in the face of everything I know about medicine," Reinarman said.

He also attacked Costa's claim that reducing supply would reduce demand and the problems attendant with drug use. "The availability of drugs is not correlated with drug problems," he said, citing the case of the Netherlands. "It is surrounded by countries with far more restrictive prohibitionist policies that also have higher figures for use, addiction, overdose deaths, and the like. The notion that there is a correlation between repressive drug policies and use levels is just not borne out by the facts."
Costa did not respond directly to Reinarman, instead diverting the observation by claiming that the Netherlands had "poisoned Europe" with amphetamines produced there, probably an even less apt reference to Dutch production of ecstasy, which in UN-speak is an "amphetamine-type stimulant."

Wealthy San Francisco libertarian John Gilmore reproved Costa for talking treatment while continuing to endorse repression of drug use. "We don't prosecute diabetics," he noted. Costa did not respond.

"Most of what you said flew in the face of reality," chided Pat O'Hare, executive director of the International Harm Reduction Association, who took special umbrage at Costa's repeated call for tackling the problem through reducing demand. "We don't know how to reduce demand," he said bluntly. "I want regulation; right now, we have almost no control. I'm prepared to accept slightly more drug use, but a load less harm."

Again, Costa failed to respond directly, although he grew increasingly testy. In response to a query about medical marijuana, he almost sneered: "I don't believe in buying joints," he said. "You don't need to lick mold to get penicillin," he said, eliciting groans and jeers from the crowd.

To charges that the global prohibition regime he cheerleads is financing terrorism and political violence around the globe, Costa agreed that indeed groups like the FARC in Colombia and the Taliban in Afghanistan were profiting from the black market drug trade. "The best response is to quit buying that stuff," was the solution he proffered, a response that brought laughter and jeers.

And with that, the UN's head drug-fighter was gone, off to catch a plane for New York as the conference attendees collectively took a deep breath and scratched their heads. Whether Costa was persuaded to see the errors of his ways remains to be seen, and, given his performance Thursday, that seems most unlikely. But the fact that the top global drug-fighter felt it necessary to enter the lion's den and take on the pride suggests that the movement is making progress. As that old agitator Mahatma Gandhi once said, "First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win."

[Editor's Note: The New Orleans conference continues through Saturday. Look for more reports in the Chronicle next week and some blog posts in the meantime.]

Visit for extensive blogging from the conference, and check back at too.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

It sure doesn't seem like it. Can he really be that stupid? Gotta give the creep his due for showing up, even if he only did it under political duress and because he underestimated the range and intensity of opposition to the war on selected drugs.

Fri, 12/07/2007 - 3:33pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I am having doubts about him, it seems like he is pretty much told what to say and if valid points are brought up from the oppising side, they will just fall on deaf ears because him and his teammates goals arent to change anything, they want things to stay the same. Man... hes probably backed by some drug terrorist organization, probably big pharma.

When the truth is staring you in the face and you refuse to believe it, insane...

Fri, 12/07/2007 - 4:01pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

How many times does it have to happen right before your eyes to understand that this war isn't about the health of the people, or what is morally right. Its about power and controll. Its about the king and all his men, and the rest of the peasents. There has been so much fear mongering in the last 40 years that the mintallity of the average person has been checkmated. We are no better than our forefathers who believed a man was as good as the color of his skin, and just as it was then, so it is today. We will continue to burn the witches, and slaughter the christians as long as the empowered elite stay in power, and thats all there is to this. All who want to know the truth, know it, the rest are happy to take their place along the slop troff. So long as you don't get in the way of their food, they don't care.

D.L. Matkins Sr

Fri, 12/07/2007 - 10:20pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I give Costa some credit. I've been coming to these reform conferences since 2002, and this is the first time *any* prohibitionist politican/functionary of his caliber has felt it necessary to go into the lion's den of the reformer opposition and try to justify the prohibitionist worldview. No US drug czar will do that.

But, of course, what he said was weak and won't change his views or that of the UN agencies. But for the first time, these guys seem to be getting that we have to be directly dealt with and finessed with some charm and respect, even if that won't change our minds either. Getting noticed and finessed rather than ignored and backhanded as just crazy, like we were in favor of handing out crack or heroin to middle school kiddies with our L word, is a vast upward step for drug reform groups.

The Ghandi quote was right on...use it myself...and they're not laughing at us anymore...

Sat, 12/08/2007 - 3:51am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

People like Costa they have a RIGHT to control people in the name of Science, or Health, Decreasing "Damage to Society" as HE defines it.

The concept of individual rights, or freedom, or even the concept of Democratic Constitutional Governance must strike him as a quaint concept.

The only thing that will ever change this political reality is a revoultion in political thought.

Hope for America.

Sat, 12/08/2007 - 5:16am Permalink
Malkavian (not verified)

Just wanted to comment on his:

"Why do we have these ideological debates about drug addiction?" he complained. "People aren't divided about treating tuberculosis or AIDS."

My golly ... I wonder why? Maybe because UNLIKE tuberculosis and AIDS we treat drug users and addicts like criminals, steal their money, seize their houses and imprison them - causing untold grief, vastly increasing the likelihood for mental disease, destroying lives, families and neighborhoods worse than ANY drug would ever aspire to.

The UN ideology that we're debating here is whether it's reasonable to call a drug user or an addict "a criminal" - and that's QUITE another thing than simply "curing a disease".

The hypocrisy is simply this: drugs having a risk/probability of N for causing X carry with them the stigma of criminalization, alcohol having a probability of N for causing X is perfectly legal. So basically there are two standards for evaluating stuff: 1. the medieval standard used for drug evaluation and 2. the modern, rational, consequence-driven analysis that's used for evaluating alcohol and tobacco.

Or expressed in laymen's terms: we don't LIKE drugs, hence we judge them completely biased like we used to judge Jews, blacks, homosexuals and so on.

Sat, 12/08/2007 - 9:53am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Please let me thank you for the forum and all of the previous comments that have come forth. This is one of the most thought and hence potential action provoking forums in America.

Any consumer in a supply and demand environment will be re-labeled “criminalized” unless he/she has been placed into another of the environments (syndromes) that make more money for those that control them. - pete’s principle

0. Church –State Syndrome (CSS) – Speaks for itself- Requires 1-3 to function and be coordinated and to keep from bumping heads. The cheapest worker is necessary.

1. Military –MEDIA -Mafia Industrial Syndrome (MMM-MIS)- sells buys then re-sales drugs for the capital generated then with the help of local law enforcement which controls things by allowing criminals to resale them only while politically correct. media then glorifies the criminal behavior
eg American Gangster and Rap artists selling drugs and making movies about them. This is a direct result of the capital generated from slavery and the inappropriate loophole in the 13th amendment . READ IT!

2. Medical-Industrial Syndrome (MED-MIS)- develops drugs to cure disease at an inflated cost when cheaper natural remedies are available,
(atrial fib is still best controlled by a digitalis "leaf "derivative Also develops germ warfare that requires drugs to cure (HIV retrovirus)
and "discovers" drugs to prevent death keeping some in this category

3. Prostitution –Industrial Syndrome (PIS). Thanks to prohibition, the MMMM-MIS has allowed control of the PIS with certain exceptions of internet hookups, and jay hawkers
which are above the law.

3. "Legal" drug - Correctional Institution -Industrial Syndrome- Were it not for
Mothers Against Drunk Drivers the problems of the "drunk driving" criminal would not have come to bear. All of the aforementioned are criminals. Yet the legal profession allows the flow of a "citizen" of one of the above (and there are more ) to go from for example Syndrome 1 to 3. (see lyric to Old Man River, ‘get a little drunk and you land in jail” vs Cole Porter’s. You will go to jail if your money does not exceed the potential of those who you can potentially kill with your actions. (women, kids, whites vs. blacks)

“I get a thrill from cocaine and mere alcohol doesn’t thrill me at all”
An x-slave is only as good as the disallowance of a cheaper worker illegal import. At that point He must find himself working for one of the Syndrome monopolies. He had no right as a slave and he has no rights as a criminal.

This is the best I can do to be concise and accurate in describing the “problem” that we have, namely being hypocritical in giving “rights” to citizens and then justifying their removal by criminalizing them.

The ultimate Church-State Syndrome has never lost its power because we fail to find a personal relationship with Jesus. This disallows the necessity of entry into one of the syndromes without backsliding and an external thing. IT removes the need of inappropriate cathexis which is the ultimate criminal behavior. (Putting anything ahead of God)

Sat, 12/08/2007 - 11:17am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Antonio Costa is not only a fool of monumental proprortions, he is also a patsy to the Fundamentalist Right, who - I can't help feeling - might have had something to do with his appointment, leveraging their hold on the UN in the days of Koffee Anan.

Funny how this old Stalinist, a Russian University product of the days of the Cold War seems to be regularly wined and dined by the American Loony Right these days... guess they had more in common than they let on.

On a more serious note, it is quite shocking that a man carrying the title of Unddersecretary-General of the United Nations is allowed to be unaccounrable on so many points of blatant misinformation and outright propaganda. No wonder the UN is getting more and more discredited.... if monkeys like that are in charge.

Sat, 12/08/2007 - 11:40am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Any conveniently accessible mention of Antonio Maria Costa's visit in the mainstream media?

Challenging law enforcement in the court of law, as suggested above, could leave us losing, because the lying prohibitionists dominate that world?

Challenging the fundamental law (CSA) in the court of public opinion, however, is where our victory awaits. The law is clearly corrupt. The U.S. is born on the fight against corrupt laws, as clearly shown in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. We, the Anti-WoD, are the freedom fighters of our day. We are the true patriots. We are supported by the facts. We are the good guys, but to dominant public opinion, we are the bad guys.

Imagine CNN, Fox News, etc. reporting on this event and the clear, counter-prohibitionist points made.

Imagine those news outlets continuously reporting our positive message promoting the great benefit to society of legalization with abuse prevention through education and treatment.

We win this debate hands down, but if the majority of voters who strongly dictate the direction Congress travels don't see the debate result, then the overwhelming anti-prohibitionist pressure needed fails to arise.

Does our movement have any connections with the mainstream media?

Is there a strong effort to take our movement into the mainstream spotlight?

The War on Drugs is big news.

We can't let the major news outlets continue to ignore that reality.

Since the mainstream media seems to only like fresh events, every time something like this visit happens, an excellent press release should be flooded towards them ASAP.

Is that happening? If not, why not?

Sat, 12/08/2007 - 2:26pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Nit-picking a point above: you certainly wouldn't treat a-fib with digitalis! You might, however, CAUSE it that way.

Sat, 12/08/2007 - 2:40pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Your comment that MADD was the initial breakthrough to the re-labelling drunk driving a criminal act is incorrect. NYS changed its laws against plea bargaining out of alcohol, immediate license suspension for refusing the BAC test and 11 more reforms first in the nation and signed by Gov. Carey on 7-8-80. Deaths immediately began to drop due to DWI, best in NY (23%, California (14%) USA (12%.) MADD began its campaign in August, 1980, in California.

RID (Remove Intoxicated Drivers) beginning in 1978 started the public process of gathering hundreds of DWI victims, court watchers, 40 press conferences announcing who was a weak judge or D.A. to warm up the process in the Northeast to get tough with drunken drivers.

Rewriting history surves no public good and hurts the most entirely volunteer group, RID, who changed the DWI world.
Signed Doris Aiken, Pres. & Founder.

Sat, 12/08/2007 - 3:47pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Will they ever get a clue that there's a difference between the two?

Cool that he showed up though. Hope you guys didn't scare him away for good.

Sun, 12/09/2007 - 6:34pm Permalink
sicntired (not verified)

[email protected] Vancouver,B.C. Canada The day we thought would never come,is here.Robert(willie)Picton has been convicted of the first 6 of 26 counts of 1st degree murder.The jury could only agree on 2nd degree for the 6 because,quite frankly,there was no coherent evidence mounted against him and a whole host of villians in the wings.The guy was said to have confessed to 49 murders.I've never trusted cop in the cell confessions because I've seen at least one that was an out and out fraud.Picton was able to kill at will because no-one in this city gave a damn that drug addicted prostitutes were disappearing.It would be interesting to hear what Mr Costas would have to say about issues like Mr.Picton.On the issue of addiction,as an addict for 40 years I'm a poor example of the casual user profile.Heroin is not a casual use drug.Having said that,the people like myself,that just can't or won't quit,are addictive personalities.I come from a long line of heavy drinkers(read alcoholics).I'd rather be dead than straight.I kid you not.I've been in jail so often they used to reserve me a room when I got out.I've quit cocaine,however,twice now.Most drugs are not that difficult to kick.Thing is,when you find one you like,a lot,you're in serious trouble.I never met a person that could use heroin casually.I know many that were sure they could.I had no illusions.Love can drive a good man bad.There are probably some people out there that can pick it up and lay it down.I've never met one.In 40 years.There are 1&1/2% of the population that will be addicted to drugs .Always are,always will be.This is a historical fact.Opium used to be in teething drops,all kinds of patent medicine.Still 1&1/2%.Cocaine was part of Coca Cola.Still 1&1/2%.How come mr,maria-costas can't see this?Insert gandhi quote here.I say we adapt it as our motto.

Thu, 12/13/2007 - 1:38am Permalink
sicntired (not verified)

I'd like to invite this guy to Vancouver to meet the families of 26 women that never harmed any one in their short brutal lives.They were sex trade workers that were stalked and killed by a psycopath while the authorities in this city had bigger fish to fry.Willie Picton murdered at will or on a whim because nobody in this city and the world at large gave a damn that hooker junkies were disappearing at an alarming rate.Vancouver's thriving drug sub culture complained,girls tried to watch out for one another but willie had an easy time.He knew that once the cold crept in.Once the inside overcoat thinned.these girls would do anything to avoid the fate that to them was worse than death.They went to the pig farm and were butchered because they needed a fix.In Vancouver,in the past decade,that was a capital crime.I feel sick and empty when I think about those women in their last moments.I know the ache of "getting thin"and I wish it on no one.Come to Vancouver Mr UN truth evader.I'll show you your drug war in the light of a east end alley,where people sleep in the dirt because they'd rather put the pittance they receive for support in their veins.I'll show you the bang up job your drug war is doing for people here.The east end is a microcosm of the world at large.Come and see for yourself.WE do it just for your amusement.

Thu, 12/13/2007 - 2:01am Permalink

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